16 Sep Primary Education is Extraordinary. What I learned in a day.
I recently spent a day visiting Tudor Court Primary School in Chafford Hundred, Essex, as part of a visit for a group of Chinese teachers. It’s a school I worked with last year – led by the wonderful Phil Kyriacou. It’s a four form entry school which allows visitors to get a sense of the curriculum as it changes through the year groups whilst also seeing the dynamics of different classes within each year. As a secondary specialist, I found it absolutely fascinating – as I have on every occasion I’ve visited primary schools before.
My main thought throughout the day was just how important the work of primary teachers is. All the basic knowledge and skills that we assume students will arrive with in Year 7 – reading, writing, social skills, learning habits – do not simply spring into being. They are crafted and nurtured in primary classrooms – these are precious days for each child. I was also struck by just how complex it is and just how difficult it must be to get right for every child.
Our visit gave us the opportunity to see students in different classes all the way through the school. Here are some reflections on what I saw.
Reception: Child-initiated play.
In the early weeks of reception, children were all fully immersed in extended child-initiated play in various zones inside and outside the classroom. The teachers were taking children aside one at a time for one-to-one baseline assessments – numbers, letters, shapes. I could have stayed there all day – just to join in all the activities. Children were involved in so many different things: a tool shed outside with planks of wood, foam blocks and tyres to stack – children with hard-hats and drills acting out a builders’ yard scene; a sand pit with lots of pouring and digging; some girls burying dinosaurs in tyre filled with sand; a toy house indoors was the scene of an extended drama played out with some figures- the children far too busy to stop to answer my questions; there was table of cake tins of different sizes to stack, fit together and play games with; a set of motor-skills games with sticks, conkers and buttons to push along some wiggly lines; a big chalk-drawn race track with tricycles to race around on. There were also some computer programmes linking sounds and letters to puzzles of different kinds.
All of this hands-on stuff was interwoven with the social dynamics of sharing, taking turns and agreeing on a plan. The teacher explained how they monitor activities and balance the total freedom with the need to sometimes direct certain students towards different areas depending on how they progress with their learning. I don’t fully understand the developmental science but this all felt like a very important period in these children’s education. The primordial soup from which so much else flows. I thought that it must be easy to get this period wrong; to mistime the point at which the play moves toward more formal learning. How do you know when? Can you have too much play? Does it have to be the right kind of play? So many questions!
I was in awe of the teachers. Their patience with the children, their enthusiasm and positive encouragement – and just the right amount of direction and shepherding and reinforcement of social graces. We’re all teachers but it’s another world in EYFS.
Year 2: Phonics and writing
As much as I’ve tried to follow the debate about reading and phonics, I haven’t seen that much phonics teaching in practice. This was a treat. We saw a mix of set-ups designed to cater for different needs or to facilitate smaller group sessions within a larger class. The phonics teaching was very skilful – energetic, precise, linking sounds to whole words and to writing the letters in cursive hand-writing. There was a blend of work at tables and then on the carpet – the classic primary scenario with students gathered cross-legged at the teacher’s feet. I was so impressed with how well teachers could hold attention, switch from instruction, to questioning, to paired discussions, to choral responses – whilst juggling the resources and managing minor behaviour issues.
The range of skills in writing was remarkable – and I imagine a real challenge to manage. Some students still struggling with some basic letter formation whilst others were writing fluently with ease. I wondered whether this gap narrows over time – simply because children start learning at different times and rates and that evens out – or whether Year 2 writing is a major indicator of future success overall? The issues of seeking universal mastery whilst also delivering challenge for all and differentiating support are common to us all but it’s a very stark issue in Year 2. I saw teachers doing a brilliant job holding their groups together, blending small group and independent work and paying attention to individual learning needs. It’s quite brilliant to watch.
Year 4: Reading, speaking, imagination and accuracy.
Year 4s were engaged in a unit of Witches based around Roald Dahl’s The Witches. In one class this was the stimulus for some art-activities – drawing, painting, collage. The teacher said it would flow into a writing task where students would write instructions for the witch figures they were making. Next door, students were writing dialogues based on the story. In each pair, one was a BBC reporter interviewing their partner, Grandmother, a Witchophile. They wrote their scripts and then some were invited to act them out for the class – which was wonderful. In another class, there was a screen showing a class brainstorm of adjectives and connectives that students were then using to answer questions about various characters in the story.
In each class, it was interesting to see how teachers used core tasks that enabled every student to engage and progress but also gave them a degree of freedom to push to another level. They also balanced the demand for accuracy and precision with English and the encouragement to inject some flair and personality into the dialogue. Sitting with a pair of boys, it was fascinating to see how they worked, taking time to process their thoughts, to turn the collective group-level sharing of ideas into ideas of their own that they felt happy to commit to paper. Dry-wipe boards were on hand for children to try ideas out – that seemed to help them. It was like being present at the moment of inception of a creative idea – you can’t simply drill someone into being imaginative. That must take a lot of skill and patience – to balance the rigour and the freedom. Respect is due!
Year 6: Grammar and the Wider Curriculum
I didn’t see a Year 6 lesson on this occasion but we spent some time reviewing curriculum resources. I’m looking at a Year 6 grammar book right now. My main observation is simply to marvel at how much there is in it that I do not know! But this is also a set of things I wish I had been taught. It’s one of the maddening features of our national curriculum that the KS2 SPAG does not spiral up into KS3 so that secondary teachers share the same professional learning as their KS2 counterparts in order to continue the process. We all should know and support the teaching of this stuff – not just English teachers.
The other reflection – which also applied to Y3-Y5 – was the nature of primary teaching in relation to the foundation subjects. The use of themed topic work is entirely logical given that teachers have to teach so many content areas. Some of the themes are rich in content and look like they would be wonderful to teach. At the same time I couldn’t help wonder whether they can ever be given enough time when so much emphasis is placed on literacy and maths. Is there room for more specialist science teaching and history teaching? And definitely French. Hats off to teachers who have to develop confidence with so many areas – it is something teachers acknowledge as an issue for them. At least at Tudor Court, the staff is large enough to allow for quite a few subject leaders to support specialist teaching across KS2. It must be very hard in smaller schools for every teacher to deliver all the content areas with full confidence, at the right level for the age group.
Finally, I am struck by how much changes from YR to Y6. Within one school, nevermind between Y6 and Y7, the nature of teaching changes so dramatically with very different skills. I wonder how easy it is for teachers to swap around between year groups?
I’m hoping to spend more time in primary schools in future. There’s so much to learn! Thanks again to Phil and the amazing staff at Tudor Court for a superb visit.